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The West Fork Gallatin River, left, flows into the main fork of the Gallatin River on Nov. 10.

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The Gallatin County Commission signed a letter of support Tuesday for proposed legislation that could protect rivers and creeks throughout the state for years to come.

The letter was addressed to Montana’s congressional delegation in support of the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, a bill proposed by Sen. Jon Tester earlier this year, that could protect 385 miles of waterways in Montana. The proposed legislation seeks to add 20 rivers and creeks to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act system.

The decision was met with clapping from the many people that came in support of the legislation, which commissioners noted was a rare occurrence in the Gallatin County Courthouse.

“I feel that it is a bit of a responsibility for us here in Gallatin County to show that we recognize that we are at the headwaters for the ecology for our continent,” County Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said. “And that we have very significant impacts in the decisions that we make here.”

Four waterways in Gallatin County — the Gallatin River, Hyalite Creek, Taylor Creek and a portion of the Madison River — could be protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act if Tester’s legislation passes.

And should the bill pass, the 20 rivers would be given one of three Wild and Scenic River classifications: wild, scenic or recreational.

The level of development along a segment of river would determine its classification. Charles Drimal, the deputy conservation director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said that a waterway with a “wild” classification would be a river or creek found in the backcountry with little to no development.

The Gallatin River, for example, would be considered “recreational” because of developments like U.S. Highway 191 that runs alongside it.

Federal agencies that already manage land along the waterways, like the U.S. National Forest Service at Custer Gallatin National Forest, would be in charge of creating management plans for the rivers and creeks should the bill pass.

Despite the commission’s unanimous vote in support of the letter, Commissioner Joe Skinner said at the meeting that he had concerns about unintended consequences that could occur after the bill’s passage.

One of his concerns was that the legislation could affect forest management along the rivers. A river designation would protect a quarter-mile of land on each side of the river. Skinner wondered if management beyond that protected zone would be affected.

“Isn’t that just another arrow in the quiver of environmental groups using that action against that active management that the Forest Service might deem appropriate?” Skinner said at the meeting.

Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director for American Rivers, said that an analysis conducted by American Rivers would only affect 4,200 acres of suitable timber base. Vegetation management would not be affected, but those 4,200 acres of timber would be moved from the suitable timber harvesting rotation.

Tester introduced a version of this bill in Nov. 2020, which would have added 336 miles of rivers and creeks under the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation. The newest edition, introduced in June, added nearly 50 miles of waterways.

According to the senator’s office, Tester is “continuing to push for a committee hearing” so that the bill gets moved forward “as quickly as possible.” Tester’s bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, according to Congress’ bill tracker.

Sen. Steve Daines is on that committee, and according to his office, is working to get feedback on the proposed legislation. A spokesperson for the senator said that Daines has heard concerns over how the bill might impact public access and use of lands, timber harvesting and wildfire management, among others.

Daines supported the last bill pushing for a Wild and Scenic River in Montana in 2018. That legislation designated East Rosebud Creek as a Wild and Scenic River, the first waterway to be protected under the act in Montana since 1976.

Rep. Matt Rosendale did not respond to a request for comment.

Drimal of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition said that he didn’t see anything negative that could happen from Tester’s proposed legislation. The Wild and Scenic River designation for the 20 waterways proposed in the bill would be a “guiding light” for how to manage rivers in the face of possible future development, Drimal said.

“I think it will be a beacon of conservation, and a beacon of how to take care of, and how to steward, the resource,” Drimal said.

But the designation would not prevent any development along the banks of the listed waterways.

Bosse said in an interview that rivers that are categorized as “wild” and “scenic” by Congress aren’t pristine or off-limits for recreational use. Developments by private landowners could be allowed, too.

The wild and scenic designation does not affect private development, unless there is a federal permit involved, Bosse said.

For example, if a private landowner wants to build a levee along a protected river, that person would have to get a permit for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That agency would look at that proposed development and determine if the project would harm the water quality, free flow of the river or outstanding qualities of the river — with all three varying from river to river.

“And if it does, then the project either has to be denied or modified so it doesn’t harm those values,” Bosse said.

Bosse said that the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act is one of many bills that are seeking Wild and Scenic Rivers Act designations. All together, the variety of proposed legislation could add up to 7,000 miles of waterways throughout the country under the Wild and Scenic River system.

“It’s the best insurance policy we could get for our rivers,” Bosse said.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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